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Loosening Seat Belt Safety Rules

The government, under industry pressure, has adjusted standards. Now SUV occupants are at even more risk in rollovers, some claim.

September 07, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Just as the popularity of sport utility vehicles was accelerating, along with lawsuits over deaths in rollover crashes, government regulators dropped a key part of a seat belt standard that might have helped to better protect drivers and passengers.

The requirement -- that seat belts "remain on the pelvis under all conditions, including collision or rollover of the motor vehicle" -- was deleted in 1999 after automakers complained that the 1967 regulation was vague and unenforceable, records and interviews show.

Even as it grapples with new data showing that seat belts may not adequately protect people in rollover crashes, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it stands by its decision to cut the section.

"As far as we are concerned, this deletion has not compromised public safety," spokesman Rae Tyson said in a recent interview.

Critics disagree. "There is no other requirement in the safety belt rules that addresses belt performance in rollover crashes," said Joan Claybrook, president of the Public Citizen advocacy group. "That is a real issue, because belts do not work well in rollover crashes."

The fate of the seat belt rule demonstrates how safety regulations can live or die in the details of technical language that often is the target of aggressive lobbying. Consumer groups and plaintiffs' lawyers viewed the rule as a valuable tool to help ensure auto safety, but federal regulators agreed with manufacturers that the rule was not enforceable.

The industry also was concerned about getting sued, agency records show. One industry group wrote to NHTSA objecting that the seat belt requirement imposed "unconscionable societal costs" because of the expense of defending lawsuits alleging that belts had failed.

Critics say that instead of deleting key language, NHTSA should have toughened the rules, part of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 209.

NHTSA now says it is "looking very seriously" at upgrading its seat belt requirements, Tyson said, in conjunction with mandating stronger vehicle roofs and other measures to deal with mounting deaths in rollovers.

Seat belts have been primarily designed for head-on collisions, and can become loose in a rollover, according to government and industry experts. SUVs, with their higher centers of gravity, have proven more vulnerable to rollover accidents. Automakers say they are also working on new technology to ensure that seat belts offer greater protection in rollovers.

Earlier statistics had pointed to a pattern of carelessness among rollover victims, with a high proportion failing to buckle up. But that no longer seems accurate.

A recent study by researchers from George Washington University and NHTSA found that nearly 40% of those seriously injured or killed in a large sample of rollover crashes were wearing seat belts. And a government survey released last week found that people in SUVs -- along with those in vans -- are the likeliest to use seat belts, with 83% buckling up.

Mary Beth Arcidiacono is among them. A self-described "neurotic about safety," she put her family in an SUV because she believed "bigger is better."

On Aug. 8, 1998, Arcidiacono was driving her four children on a Colorado interstate when she lost control of her Chevrolet Suburban. It rolled four times.

The Arcidiaconos were all buckled in, but 13-year-old John was ejected and killed. Christopher, then 11, also was ejected and suffered a brain injury, the effects of which he's still striving to overcome. The family sued General Motors.

The company entered into a confidential financial settlement with the family, but admitted no liability. The family's lawyer, Ron Franklin, said he based his case partly on Standard 209 -- which was in effect when their Suburban was built.

At the time of Arcidiacono's accident, the effort by the auto industry to repeal key language in the standard was already well underway.

The industry objected to a section that read: "A seat belt assembly shall provide pelvic restraint ... and the pelvic restraint shall be designed to remain on the pelvis under all conditions, including collision or rollover of the motor vehicle."

In 1991, H. George Johannessen, a technical expert with the American Occupant Restraints Council, wrote to NHTSA objecting that the section was too subjective and requesting a ruling that it not be a requirement, but merely "a design goal."

Johannessen, whose organization represents seat belt manufacturers, said the government had failed to set forth a test procedure to determine compliance. Standard 209 was also causing big problems in court, he added.

"Unfortunately, positioning of the seat belt off the pelvis ... has been cited in recent litigation as prima facie evidence that the seat belt does not comply with the federal standard and ... is defective," Johannessen wrote. "The need to refute the allegations of design defect ... leads to unnecessary expenditure of time and effort, and unconscionable societal costs."

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